Yerevan Journal – November 2003

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Yesterday’s bright sun brought a huge crowd to the Vernisage, where Yerevantsis, tourists, and foreign workers and students all made their way through the popular market. After having khorovadz wrapped in lavash, I joined several others to look at a home for sale in Nor Gyugh (new village), located just past the town of Abovian, on the road to Sevan. Although the house itself turned out to be nothing more than a well built box, I was impressed by the view from Nor Gyugh. To the northeast, hundreds of hectares of farmland were alive with villagers gathering cabbages, carrots, and potatoes, with a backdrop of snow-covered hills and taller mountains. The tallest peak was Mt. Hadis. Just beyond the mountain are Kyavar, Martuni, and Lake Sevan. Villagers enthusiastically told us about the caves and rivers closeby, and a restaurant “like in Las Vegas.” Even though the house lacked what my friend was looking for, we stayed until dark talking with the villagers about Nor Gyugh and its surroundings. Back in Yerevan, I watched a show where the screen is split, with interviewers and guests in Yerevan on one side, and the same from Los Angeles on the other. After seeing the changed accents and expressions of the Yerevan-born Armenians now living in Los Angeles, I appreciated even more my trip to the village.

Yesterday morning was unusually active in Anastasavan, with Election Day finally arriving for the municipal head of Ajapnyak, of which Anastasavan is a part. Of the two candidates, the incumbent was Aparantsi, and his opponent the son of a well-known politician. As a neighbor said this morning as we met in the elevator, why vote for an outsider, when the incumbent is “one of us.” I agreed. What else could I do? With people going back and forth to the local election center, we left for Byurakan to visit relatives. Being a mountainous village on the slopes of Aragats, the autumn harvest of apples, pears, and plums is still under way. Upon arriving, we were handed pears and plums to eat, all icy from the cool mountain air. Most of the garden area had already been shoveled and hoed. We sat on my wife’s aunt’s balcony enjoying fruit and a light lunch, then went to another cousin’s house to get fresh cheese, madzoon, and milk. We looked at a “dacha,” or summer house, and left for Yerevan. Nearing our home in Anastasavan, we saw that Bashinjaghyan Street was completely blocked by a huge crowd of people, not related to the day’s election, but for the funeral of a ninteen-year-old boy named Harout. There were two black banners stretched over the street’s beginning and end saying, “Harout — 19,” in the Armenian tradition. I had seen crowds of men standing near the youth’s home the past two days, during the time of hokihankist. I don’t know the cause of death. . . . Today in Yerevan four died in a tragic accident involving several vehicles on one of Yerevan’s busiest streets, known as “Srchanayin.” There is a large number of vehicles on Yerevan’s streets these days, but hopefully this kind of accident doesn’t repeat.

A trip to National Radio is always inspiring, resulting in impromptu meetings with various radio show hosts, poets, singers, and others. Today I was invited to participate in a program where each week a certain well-known Armenian writer is featured. Being this week’s featured writer is William Saroyan, and being related to the great writer, I was invited to tell stories about the writer, remembrances, etc. As I talked about Saroyan, telling about the man’s booming, musical voice, humor, and love of family gatherings and relatives, I noticed the fascination of the host, who later invited me to return and continue our conversation. My wife and I then went to an adjoining office to say hello to another talk show host, a woman who does insightful interviews with singers and artists in general, often accompanied by traditional music and poetry. It happened that the woman’s show has been “removed” from the air, due to a shocking decision to not air programs that are too serious or national. Although the official reason is that not enough people were listening to National Radio, thus the decision to change the programming, it has been said that this is part of a plan to somehow remove Armenians further from their historic roots, to westernize Armenians for whatever political reasons. If the latter is true, it would be shocking to say the least . . . especially after seeing on television how our Iranian and Turkish neighbors take special care to preserve their national music and traditions through concerts and similar programming.

Today was a somewhat typical day in this part of the world. After waking up and watching the morning news for a few minutes, the power went off just as I was getting ready to shower. While washing my face with icy cold water at about 8:15, someone knocked on the door. And who was there, but my wife’s sister and a cousin from Byurakan, laughing partly due to their obviously early visit. They had been to the bus station to send some honey (brought recently from Kyavar) to the cousin’s son serving in the army in Meghri. We sat down in our cold apartment to breakfast, and then a phone call from Moscow revealed the unfortunate news that a relative there has cancer. Saddened, the two women soon left to go about their daily affairs. After errands in town, I went to Sis village, near Massis in the Ararat Valley, to meet with wheat and barley farmers there, and talk about their land reclamation program. These farmers, mostly from Baku, are fortunately receiving financial assistance from American organizations as they struggle in their new life in Armenia. Back in Yerevan, I waited near the circus building to take a yertooghayin van home. A new law saying that no one is allowed to stand in the vans, and that when all the seats are taken no more passengers are allowed, is making it difficult to find a ride home, especially in rush hour traffic. After finally finding a van with a place to sit, I watched as would-be riders tried flagging down the full van, their arms often rising in amazement or disgust as the vans passed them by. One driver, frustrated that he earns less money now due to the new limitation on passengers, started complaining about all the ills of Armenia, including the bad water which recently plagued major parts of Yerevan, filling the hospitals with people sick with dysentery and jaundice. As he said, in Soviet times, such a crime not only wouldn’t have happened, but whoever was guilty would have been punished by a trip to Siberia.

Today while riding a yertooghayin van down “Shinararneri Poghots” not far from home, I was happy to see the famous actor Vladimir Msryan get into the van. I remembered the role he played in Saroyan’s My Heart’s in the Highlands at the Dramatic Theater two years ago. The long-haired actor was well-known throughout the former Soviet Union, and fortunately has stayed in Armenia in spite of the financial and other difficulties those in acting and other arts are suffering. At a recent performance at the “Sosi Tadron” — actually the National Theater but commonly called “Sosi Tadron” after its director Sos Sargsyan — an actor played what might be his final performance in a presentation by a French playwright. The actor, also an accomplished director, is going to Beirut to work in the Armenian theater there. For the Armenians of Beirut, this is wonderful, but it is a pity the actor is leaving due to the low salary (and lack of respect) he and other quality actors receive here. Before independence, both theater and movie production produced excellent art. I am reminded of the movie with actor/director Frunze Dovlatyan doing a solo dance at a wedding party, dancing as well as any professional, his expression and dancing becoming a famous part of Armenian film. Also in the movie, the name of which slips my mind, Dovlatyan tried to persuade Armen Jigarkhanyan, another great actor, to dance, Jigarkhanyan sulking off to the side while Dovlatyan continued his dance. Henrik Alaverdyan, accomplished both as a singer and actor, also had a part in the movie.

Yesterday morning I went to the Interior Ministry cultural hall where my wife holds rehearsals for her Hayrig Mouradian children’s ensemble. As many of the group have grown and become students at various institutes, a new group has begun, from ages three or four to about seven. Due to the rain that recently enveloped Yerevan, few of the young students of song and dance came to the rehearsal. From there, we went to a welcome-home party for a former member of the ensemble, now nine years old, who had participated in a chess tournament in Greece during the past two weeks. I remember three years ago in Dilijan how Lucine, then six years old, played against university students in a university campground, beating the champion from Yerevan State. After celebrating her return from Greece, we went home and entertained guests with a dinner of “kalagyosh,” a dish originating in Van. Kalagyosh is prepared with lentils, cooked and spread over small pieces of soft lavash, with dashes of sour cream and olive oil. A guest told us about his sister who has been studying in the U.S. for the past two years, while living in Glendale. Although she had thought seriously about staying in the U.S., she has decided to return to Armenia. She complained of the Armenia-born Armenians now living in Glendale and their new feelings of superiority over anyone living in Armenia. And, not a surprise, she said that they are doing their best to remove themselves from their roots and to act and think like their new neighbors in America.

The first snowfall of the year arrived in northern Yerevan today, covering the hills of the Kanaker, Avan, and Massiv districts with enough snow to slow the traffic almost to a halt. The snowstorm resulted in a tragic event near Gyumri, when a Russian MIG crashed into a mountain in the frozen area near Jajur, a village near the border of the provinces of Shirak and Lori. In spite of this, Yerevantsis are still debating the show on the ALM television station in which the well-known political figure Baruyr Hayrikyan was interviewed by the station’s owner and the show’s host, Tigran Karapetyan. Although the two agreed in principle that laws should be equally enforced for everyone in Armenia, disagreement arose concerning the issue of the draft and its application to members of various sects who refuse to serve in the army. It happens that some members of the Jehovah’s Witness group, refusing induction into the army, are now in prison. Hayrikyan spoke in favor of alternative service, but says the service shouldn’t be something so easy that people would rush to sign up for it. The talk in Yerevan after the conversation was that Armenia is too small a country to have alternative service, and that, if alternative service became law, many youth of military age would join one of the sects just to avoid army service, which would have the possibility of dangerously weakening the Armenian army.

A day after the recent rain and snow storms in Armenia, clearing skies revealed snow-covered mountains in every direction, from the range toward Sevan to Mt. Aragadz and Massis, all covered with snow, down to the lower slopes of the Ararat Valley. Although my morning trip to Echmiadzin was for business reasons, like everyone in the van I kept my gaze toward Massis. Upon reaching the gates of Echmiadzin — or, rather, the former gates of Echmiadzin, the gates having been torn down after an odd decision by our Church Fathers — I looked down the road in the direction of the church of St. Gayane. Again, Massis appeared, the mountain seeming to follow me wherever I went. Unfortunately, work in Yerevan prevented me from walking to St. Gayane, thus ending what was probably my last visit to Echmiadzin this year. Back in Yerevan, I took care of business and visited friends at the United Nations building, located next to the Erebuni Hotel in downtown Yerevan, then returned home to Anastasavan. On National Television, I wasn’t surprised to see yet another program focusing on the topics of alternative service for the armed services and dual citizenship. Participants for the most part spoke against alternative service, some even resenting the incursion of Western philosophies and political ideas into Armenia. Many also doubted the worth of dual citizenship, figuring those from the Diaspora who wanted dual citizenship wanted only to be able to buy land, yet not take part in the defense of Armenia, should such a need arise. One participant, though thanking the Diaspora for its financial help during the Karabagh war, noted that very few Armenians actually fought alongside their Armenian-born brethren. As this older person said, “It isn’t the ‘spyurk’ of the past, when Armenians flocked to the homeland in time of need.”

Hasmik Harutyunyan with members of the Hayrig Mouradyan Children’s Ensemble Yesterday was the last day my wife’s Hayrig Mouradyan Children’s Ensemble met for the year, cold rehearsal halls and winter vacations meaning the end of another successful season of teaching boys and girls the songs and dances of Old Armenia. Eager children from the ages of three to seven attended twice a week, often with even younger brothers and sisters sitting with their parents, the ancient songs and dances of Armenia becoming a part of their lives at this early age. The day before, my wife was a guest on the “Bari Looys Hayastan” television program, appearing with co-Shoghaken Ensemble member Levon Tevanyan. Hasmik talked about the re-emergence of interest in traditional Armenian songs at Armenian weddings. Families asked for the songs that accompany the bride when she leaves the family home on her wedding day and says farewell to her mother, and songs praising the groom, who becomes king on the wedding day. Hasmik sang a song praising the groom, which she learned from her teacher, Hayrig Mouradyan. Callers expressed their enthusiasm on hearing, and hearing about, this music. Later that evening, an older friend from Baku, who barely speaks Armenian, called our house, and almost in tears told how touched he was upon hearing this music. Yet we were reminded of a sad reality in present-day Armenia when another friend called this morning and told how her cultural talk show at National Radio had been cut, as were several others, orders from above saying they didn’t want any programs featuring traditional music — taking orders from whom, I’m not sure.

Today I went to Mashtots Prospect and picked up my camera, which had been in need of repair for some time. The back flap of the camera was reattached for the amazingly low price of twenty dollars, a small percentage of what it would have cost in the West. I thanked the repairman, and asked why he worked on his own instead of opening a store. His answer wasn’t a surprise. He said that he had tried opening a repair shop once, but by the time he had paid “the mayor, the mayor’s uncle, the tax man’s nephew,” etc., there was no point in opening a shop. This way, at least he could keep the twenty dollars, instead of only about five after paying off several people for unknown reasons. He then turned to the fancy appliance store nearby and said it was interesting that such shops were in a country where over half the population has left in search of work. When I commented on the busy streets and large population of Yerevan, he asked if I had been to the villages and seen how few people were there, and that those remaining were often old and unable to work. He continued on another related topic, saying that outside forces were trying to destroy Armenia, creating a war, earthquake, and then freezing the population in the early Nineties. When these events still didn’t break the will of the people, he said, they tried again by ruining, through lack of financial and other support, the ancient culture of Armenia, by stopping funding for theater, traditional musical groups, and others. With only partial success, he said, they are now trying to destroy the education system of Armenia, forcing teachers to work extra hours, giving them unusually large classes to teach, and changing the educational program most every year. Whether or not I agree with this man’s opinion isn’t important. It’s a pity such an opinion exists, and not only in this person.

The restaurant on Dzidzernakapert, close to the Genocide Museum, was the scene of a festive wedding reception for a Belgium-born Armenian and a girl from Goris. As we arrived, the girl’s mother told us privately that she couldn’t understand Armenians coming from elsewhere and taking the best girls from Armenia out of their homeland. Understandable, yet after meeting the groom, it was evident that he appreciated the girl and her family alike. While people were toasting the bride and groom, the girl’s mother stood and expressed her feelings in a subtle way, saying she had raised her daughter in a traditional Armenian way, educated her, and then, to the groom, said that her daughter was going to a foreign land with a culture she didn’t know, and to be sure her daughter was happy and lived in a good, friendly, Armenian environment. Music and singing continued throughout the evening, led by a group of two tenors and their musicians, including a clarinetist named Slavik who played his instrument with unbelievable mastery. After Shoghaken dudukist Gevorg Dabaghyan played “Dle Yaman,” my wife made a toast and then sang “Merik-Merik,” a song where the bride is saying farewell to her mother on her wedding day. Following my wife’s “Msho Geghen,” accompanied by Dabaghyan, she invited the bride’s mother, a good singer, to join her at the microphone. Together, they sang ashoughakan songs and other traditional songs, then changed to the dance songs of Moush, Sassoun, and Van, bringing everyone to their feet to the Ververi, Yarkhooshta, and other dances. Upon seeing the guests’ reaction to the traditional music, the group that had been invited to perform at the wedding changed their program, the violin and guitar turning into kamanchas and tars, the reception lasting some eight hours, well into the cold Yerevan night.

Yesterday we went to make a purchase of what might be the best honey in the world. Our beekeeper friend, from Kyavar, lives in Yerevan, yet spends most of the summer in the mountains near Kyavar tending his bees. He warned us that this year’s honey might not be as good as last year’s, due to too much spring rain and wind. But after tasting it I was convinced he was being quite modest. While filling our containers with the new honey, already turning solid during these cold days, he told me that the best honey comes from bees collecting their pollen from a variety of flowers, as opposed to just one kind of flower. I asked him what his bees ate during the winter, and he said they eat the same honey we eat, instead of giving them sugar-water as most beekeepers do. After he finished filling several kilos of honey, he asked us, or, rather, told us we were staying to have a dolma dinner with the family. Sitting down to eat, he picked up my shot glass and replaced it with another, saying the glass on the one he took away was too thick, and that with a thin-glassed shot glass, the vodka goes down easier. We all enjoyed the dolma and tti arak (vodka from mulberries), our host wishing us a “Bari janabarh,” as our upcoming trip draws closer. He then insisted he was taking us to the airport, and when I told him we had to be there around 3:30 a.m., he said he’d pick us up no matter the time of day or night. It is never easy leaving Armenia, its people, great food, nature, and crazy life, becoming more normal the longer I am here. After our winter vacation and return to Yerevan, Yerevan Journal will resume, sometime around mid-February.
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